“The team that makes the most mistakes usually wins because doers make mistakes.”

—Coach John Wooden (10-time National Championship Basketball Coach)

Coaches in every sport are usually trying to decrease (not increase) the number of mistakes that their team makes. Winning the turnover game is a popular philosophy for many teams. For most coaches, committing fewer mistakes than your opponent is a sign of mental toughness, execution of the game plan, and “good coaching”. So, when our team does make mistakes, it can cause some frustration.

So, what did John Wooden really mean when he said more mistakes equals more wins? Wooden, more than most, understood growth mindset, deliberate practice, and mental toughness. He knew these would be foundational to a team’s development and performance. Players were not yelled at, threatened, or shamed. Wooden built a culture that encouraged and embraced mistakes.

Our problem as coaches is that when we try to minimize mistakes, we often create the perception that mistakes are bad. We add pressure, and we fail to learn and grow.

Dr. Deborah Lee and Dr. Elena Bordova, authors of the book Tools of the Mind and world-renowned researchers on learning, are so passionate and positive about mistakes, that they teach teachers to make public mistakes. First, teachers write on the board, making grammatical and mathematical errors, and then they encourage students to find the mistakes in their work. After they have normalized the idea that they, too, can make mistakes, students are more likely to point out their errors. And then comes the important bit—the teachers model emotionless mistake-making.

Mistakes are not our problem; it’s our response to mistakes that is costing us. This is how.

1. We Don’t Learn and Grow; We Make Excuses

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: Struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.” 

—Daniel Coyle, Talent Code

If we want to maximize talent development, we need to use mistakes as feedback on our performance, and something to be corrected. Deliberate practice is only possible when you make mistakes by training at the edge of your abilities.

2. We Focus on the Result, Not the Process

We are focused on the mistake and not on what we can control in the present. Every ounce of energy focused on the result takes away from the benefits we could be experiencing by improving our process.

3. We Shy Away from Challenges

As researcher Carol Dweck says, “People with a growth mindset seek and thrive on challenges.” Far too often, we don’t stretch ourselves through deliberate practice enough; instead, we see mistakes as failure, and failure as final.

Turn Challenges into Opportunities

One of the most important systems we implement with teams is the Mistake Response System (MRS) for both the players and the coaches. The strategies will fall short though if players or coaches look at their mistakes through the wrong lens. Instead of seeing mistakes as permanent, negative, and/or setbacks, we encourage teams to see them in a new way:

  • Mistakes are temporary.
  • Mistakes are feedback.
  • Mistakes are opportunities to grow.

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